In the world of pigeon breeding, there is no such thing as a "one-size-fits-all" type of bird. There's a large variety of breeds that have been developed, and what may be the ideal bird for one person may not be right for someone else.
Before you buy your first pigeon, ask yourself: What breed do I want to keep? Do I just want to keep a few pigeons for pets or do I want to show pigeons or race them? "Usually people get involved in either fancy or racing pigeons, but they don't try to do both," said Larry Pridmore, a pigeon breeder and secretary-treasurer of the Carolina Pigeon Club. "This is mainly due to time constraints. It takes a lot of time to train racing pigeons. If you keep fancy pigeons, that takes a lot of time too since usually they're kept in separate cages and you have to keep all those cages clean."
You might want to visit a local pigeon club and talk to the members to find out more about the pigeon breeds you're interested in. "Some of the breeds are harder to raise than others, based on their morphological features," said Andrew Kerns, a breeder specializing in American fantails and past-president of the Virginia Pigeon and Dove Association. For instance, the short-beaked breeds such as the Oriental frills and the African owls can be very difficult to breed. "Because of the extreme shortness of their beak, the parents can't feed their own babies. You either have to hand-feed the babies using a parrot hand-feeding formula or you have to give their eggs to a pair of homing pigeons that will be foster parents," Kerns explained. This is sometimes a real challenge, he said, because not all birds are willing to be surrogate parents, and hand-feeding baby pigeons can be difficult.
Nabraska pigeon breeder Bob McGuan recommends beginners start out with a low-maintenance breed such as a Birmingham Roller or a homing pigeon. Both of these breeds are good parents. "Build up some experience with the low maintenance breeds first, and then you can move on to the more challenging breeds," he suggested.
Where's a good place to buy your pigeons? Your best bet is to contact your local pigeon club to see if any of their members have pigeons for sale. Or, if there's a pigeon show in your area that's open to the public, stop by to see what's there. Sometimes pigeon breeders set up booths at county fairs and you might be able to purchase one of their birds. Another idea is check out an online pigeon auction. In some parts of the country pet shops sell pigeons, and that can also be a source of birds.
One other consideration is the number of pigeons you'd like to keep. "Most of the time people who are into fancy pigeons keep 50 to 100," Nolan said. "The reason is that like anything in nature, you only get a few that are very good. So for every 10 birds I raise, usually only one is of a high enough quality that I'm going to be able to keep it. Normally you need to raise about 100 birds to have 10 for a show team." For those who want pet pigeons, California pigeon breeder and exhibitor Bob Nolan added, "one bird would be excellent. In fact one is better than two because then the bird bonds with the person instead of another bird."
Expect to pay anywhere from $5 to $500 each for a fancy pigeon, and $50 to $5,000 or more for a racing homer. Obviously if you're just interested in one bird for a pet or just a pair or two to keep in your backyard, a bird with a $5 to $20 price tag will probably suit you just fine.
Caring For Pigeons
In general, pigeons are very easy to care for and adapt well to most climates and living conditions. "Pigeons do not require supervision or attention from their owners like parrots do," McGuan said. "Basically you just need to feed and water them and they're fine."
Of course, if you want a pigeon that is an actual pet, you will need to spend more one-on-one time with it. "Constant interaction and handling are important for the pigeon to become a pet," said Joe Olszyk, a pigeon breeder and judge in Maryland, and a district director for the Indian Fantail Club of America. "Many people take a youngster from the nest and begin hand-feeding it to initiate a special mutual attachment." A single-kept pigeon that is handled on a daily basis will often sit with its owners, eat out of their hands and even coo when they greet their owners, he said.
Feed your pigeons a commercially manufactured pigeon diet, which would be either a seed-and-grain mixture or formulated pellets. Supplement their diet with mineral grit and fresh foods such as whole grain bread, crackers, lettuce and grass clippings.
Most people house their pigeons outdoors in a loft or outdoor aviary. "The loft can be as small as a rabbit hutch if you've only got one pair, or as large as a chicken coop or a garage if you've got a whole colony of birds," Pridmore said. If you are keeping multiple pairs, you could have one large aviary and allow the birds to interact with each other in a colony setting, or you could keep pairs in their own separate pens within an aviary building.
(Note: if you are going to build a loft or other outdoor aviary, make sure there are no local ordinances or zoning laws prohibiting pigeons. Not all communities or housing developments allow their residents to keep pigeons or to erect outdoor aviaries.)
The aviary or loft should have a wire bottom floor for sanitation, and the whole structure should be positioned so that the birds receive a lot of natural light. If you live in a region of the country where winters get cold, it's a good idea to put clear plastic sheeting over the windows in the winter months to keep the wind out of the aviary.
"Pigeons can handle outdoor winter temperatures just fine," said pigeon breeder, Jeff Batton, who lives in North Dakota where winter temperatures often drop down to 50 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, "but they don't like being in a draft." Pigeons that are exposed to cold, frigid wind or drafts will be more susceptible to illness.
A single pigeon or a pair can be housed indoors, in a 24- by 36-inch parrot cage. Free-flying time outside the cage on a daily basis is recommended, so that the pigeons have an outlet for exercise.